Dinosaur or Phoenix!: The Profession of Librarianship


The profession of librarianship is an ancient and honourable one dating back to the earliest years of civilisation. Today the Government of Egypt is engaged in "recreating" the Library of Alexandria. The librarians role, put somewhat simplistically, is to preserve and make available human knowledge. This has been in the form of papyrus, manuscripts and, after the fifteenth century Gutenburg revolution of the mid fifteenth century, the printed book. The distribution of manuscripts was limited to those having access to scriptoria, libraries and monasteries.. Oral history at this stage was also a significant tradition of dissertation of folklore and information. Now in the Internet era the librarian may increasingly find himself or herself out of the information loop as the desktop user becomes the centre of access to information.

Despite the problems we currently have at the moment in terms of access, eg. cost of PC's, Macs, speed of bandwidth and interpretation of data on the Net, these will be overcome in the future via "Internet terminals", interactive TV's, artificial intelligence web crawlers etc. These changes do not please many members of the library profession in terms of the changes they see will impact upon them. They are not the only ones in fear of change, the scholarly community will have to give up its "love" of the printed journal and book in a distributed electronic network environment.

Michael Lesk of Bellcore, has indicated that he foresees by the year 2010 the provision of information being in a largely digital form, either by information being produced electronically 'de novo' or by the most important printed works having been digitised. One sees instances of this in Project J-STOR, which Harvard University has initiated, where it is putting back sets of periodicals on the Net in digital form in extensive backsets of journals such as American Historical Review and American Economic Review. Lesk then extrapolates by saying that scholars will physically move to the large collections of print, which will remain undigitised in the same form as scholars now move to manuscript collections. Libraries will then in effect become book museums as much more information will be available on a 24 hour basis on the Net.

The current time is a challenging one for the research university libraries and their librarians many of whom have been brought up in the historical ethos of librarianship. Constant budget reductions in University libraries mean that hard decisions have to be made in the near future. Many middle level librarians have difficulties in encompassing the information changes which are occurring and extrapolating them into the scenarios of the management in which they operate.

Many Universities have seen a convergence of their Library, IT services and teaching/learning facilities. The Virtual University Conference organised by the British Council and IDP in August 1996 in Singapore saw many speakers identifying a distinction in the twenty first century between teaching (on-line) and research (largely off-line) universities. The former would be the majority, with the latter comprising universities of the statute of Oxford, Harvard, MIT etc. In the future we will see increasingly a scenario where undergraduates are less and less likely to purchase textbooks for financial and intellectual reasons ie. currency of data. We are currently seeing an increasing use of course packs in the United Kingdom and the United States which in the future will be available interactively on the Net as well as in Docutech type print outs. This is educationally a poor choice but we need to move to interactive course paths. The Australian Federal Budget cuts of Senator Vanstone surely accelerate this tendency as students will wish to complete their course as fast as possible. Students will also increasingly demand value for many and question many academics pursuing of research for researching sake.

Once much more information is available on the Net (and we will increasingly see the commercial publishers making full text electronic material on the Net, although at prices which relate more to publisher profits then logical costs) then the role of the Library has to be carefully examined. Librarians need not feel threatened if they see themselves a pro-active creators and interpreters of knowledge of the "insides" of books rather than passive conservative cataloguers of the "outsides" of books. It is my belief that the role of Internet training, Internet publishing, flexibility of IT skills will make for, even in the present environment, a worthwhile and challenging lifelong career.

In the CAUL March 1996 Seminar in Adelaide on Library and IT convergence it was said that computer and IT staff are usually flexible but insensitive to the needs of patrons, whereas librarians are more often conservative but extremely receptive to patrons needs! In the merging of the two sectors, in which the University of Tasmania, the University of New South Wales and Griffith stand out, there clearly needs to be a balance in the provision of services. The development of new large integrated physical areas to accommodate the various services which underpin teaching and research have taken place, such as at the University of Toronto is Information Commons and University of Liverpool's John Moore Library.

In the longer term, the concepts of Virtual Universities and the provision of information on the Net both from the delivery of information and the delivery of lectures, course assignments, etc. will lead to a virtual world in which geography will not be a disadvantage, although Universities will need to develop 'niche markets'. There will need to be national co-ordination of efforts eg. in breaking the current Telstra network cost log jam in a focussed manner. The merging of infrastructures to undertake IT and Library services makes economic sense but also provides a better integrated skills base in order to achieve the relationship with the client base and the University funding infrastructure.

Dr Dale Spender in her keynote speech to the Singapore Virtual University indicated the key role in the future which Library and IT specialists (whatever they will be called) will play in the facilitating of knowledge access and provision. As Professor Arthur Sale has indicated in a previous Guest Editorial in this journal the "general staff" have as much to offer as academic staff in the access to and transmission of knowledge. The students will be in "interactive" mode in learning, while researchers will decide from their desktop where they will access information.

Various Vice-Chancellors in Singapore saw the Net and associated technologies and cultures to be the catalyst for change and those universities looking to the historical models may either wither or be subsidiary campuses of the big players at a global level. We cannot allow local internal 'turf wars' between various parts of campuses at a time when overall resources are declining. The library profession or increasingly as I would prefer to put it those who work in libraries will need to decide their role in this future.

Updated:  20 March 2013/ Responsible Officer:  University Librarian/ Page Contact:  Library Systems & Web Coordinator